IC Matters › Engagement

Employee Experience and Employee Engagement – the long and the short of it!

Donna BurtchaellDonna Burtchaell ·

We are experiencing an era of accelerating innovation and disruption where digital transformation is the norm. Openness and transparency are on the rise and employees are now recognized as powerful brand ambassadors, and perception shapers, critical to the all-important customer experience. You could say that employee experience defines customer experience.

Employees are king, driving company success and the ability to adapt, innovate, serve and ultimately drive shareholder value.

But despite the increasing focus and investment in employees, actual engagement isn’t getting any better. Report after report by Engage for Success has shown how we’re woefully inadequate when it comes to achieving engagement, with only around a third of UK workers being ‘highly engaged’. The resulting impact is on productivity. In the UK, it lags nearly 20% behind other G7 countries. Similarly, poll after poll by Gallup in the US sets employee engagement at an alarmingly low 30%.

We’re obviously getting engagement wrong and many recent blogs, white papers and books  ruminate on what might be the issue.  Are we focusing too much on a one size fits all approach to engagement or do we need to focus more on the engagement inhibitors? And what we can do differently? Possibly as a result of this, the concept of employee engagement too is evolving, progressing and broadening in its impact, and we’re seeing a shift towards thought leadership on the concept of employee experience.

Jacob Morgan is a true advocate for a focus on employee experience. He has just published his latest book, The Employee Experience Advantage,  and already it’s generating quite a buzz.

It led to me thinking about the difference between employee experience and employee engagement. So, what is the difference and why is a focus on both so important to the future of internal communication?

Employee Engagement: is something that creates positive attitudes and behaviors leading to improved business outcomes.  It’s about ‘going the extra mile.’

Employee Experience: is something that creates engaged employees and requires a more holistic focus on things such as organizational culture and leadership, empowering technology and a supportive physical environment.

In a nutshell, employee experience comes first – if you get this right, engagement will follow.

The relationship with HR

Internal Communications and HR have always been close partners; both have had to recognize the realities, and reinvent themselves in response to the many changes in the modern workplace.

Both continue to have significant parts to play in employee experience and employee engagement.

A 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey sums it up well “After years of struggling to drive employee engagement and retention, improve leadership and build a meaningful culture, executives see a need to redesign the organization. Companies need a new approach—one that builds on the foundation of culture and engagement to focus on the employee experience holistically, considering all the contributors to worker satisfaction, engagement, wellness, and alignment.”

Just as marketing and product teams are moving beyond customer satisfaction to look at a more holistic customer experience, HR and IC teams need to move beyond employee engagement and reinvent their strategies, teams and approach to one that focuses on the total employee experience.

Short term versus long term focus

At the most basic level employee engagement initiatives are often viewed as having a short- term focus, whereas employee experience initiatives are longer-term and more holistic in approach. In a recent HBR article, Jacob explores why engagement scores remain so low in the US while investment in engagement initiatives continue to rise.  He views initiatives like incentive programs or flexible working as ‘short-term fixes’, or an ‘adrenalin shot’, which can quickly boost engagement scores temporarily – but over time the effect wears off and scores return to their disappointingly low levels.

To make real gains, organizations need to think longer term and focus on the bigger picture: those three environments that matter most to employees – cultural, technological, physical.  The ‘experiential organizations’ that invest in all three, not only have happier employees, they also have more than four times the average profit, two times the average revenue and are featured twice as often in the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

The evolution of IC roles

Dillon Shikotra in his late 2016 blog  predicted that traditional IC roles focused on engagement will die and instead IC roles will evolve towards a focus on the employee experience. Rather than a channel-based approach, IC will take a much more holistic approach and look at all the touchpoints an employee has with the organization, starting from offer, onboarding, training, right through to off-boarding and beyond.

He goes on to mention how the notion of employee experience also underlines the importance of collaboration between HR, IT, Facilities and Communications departments.  Indeed, roles are even merging and adapting to accommodate it with many leading companies now having their very own ‘Head of Employee Experience’.

What about measurement?

Many are unhappy with how engagement has been typically measured. The Employee Engagement Survey itself is a regular target for disillusionment. “We’ve dumbed it down to a number.” Says Chuck Gose in his iCology podcast series

More productive techniques for measuring engagement levels or the value of internal communications include employee listening techniques such as focus groups or more regular pulse surveys to receive a timely indication of how engaged employees are feeling and what areas need focus.

The move towards measuring employee experience is more complicated as no single department owns the experience from end-to-end. It makes sense to cast the net wider and include interviews and exit interviews, for example, to help build a broader picture of what employees expect and value.

An employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) is another tool progressive companies are increasingly using to measure how loyal and engaged a company’s employees are. This asks one ‘ultimate’ question: “On a scale of zero to ten, how likely is it you would recommend this company as a place to work?” No doubt this is an interesting and

time- efficient litmus test but to really understand the reasons and address inhibitors, a more comprehensive survey is required as follow-up.

Another useful tool worth considering is The Leesman Index which is used by workplace professionals and looks at the impact of workplaces on employees and identifies the most effective spaces which are not necessarily very expensively designed. Rather, work spaces that offer plenty of natural lighting, have informal work areas and offer employees variety are much more effective and productive work environments.

Jacob Morgan believes that employee experience isn’t about a score – it’s about treating them right, giving them the tools they need and empowering them to make great decisions to perform well.  In a recent webinar, he outlines how good Employee Experiences should work like a PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle of continuous improvement in which employees should participate and respond to feedback and companies should analyze the feedback and act on it (which puts you at the beginning of the cycle again). It should be more like a lab (experiment, get feedback, embrace failures) and less like a factory (command & control, no feedback, linear or process driven).

Like great customer experiences, great employee experiences are actively designed.  And as the concept grows in recognition and use, the science of measuring it will also develop the same degree of rigor, science and timeliness.

For more great measurement reading, see the Ultimate Guide to Measuring Internal Communications written by Angela Sinickas.

The two way street

Engagement is often criticized as being too focused on doing something ‘to’ employees rather than creating something ‘with’ them.

Employee experience has more of a two-way street feel to it.  It is not just the responsibility of the organization, employees need to realize that they are responsible for it too. They choose what job to apply for, and what company to work for, they do the work and therefore need to take responsibility for their skillset and take advantage of opportunities to share their ideas. They need to take charge of their own experiences.

In addition, as employee experience is something that is designed with employees, on-going employee feedback is important to ensure it constantly evolves in line with changing needs and expectations.

The relationship with employee advocacy

A positive employee experience leads to engaged employees which leads to a great customer experience. Indeed, employee experience and customer experience are often seen as two sides of the same coin.

As each Edelman Trust Barometer shows, employees and customers trust ‘people like me.’ As a result, senior leadership teams are increasingly seeking to inspire and empower their employees to become brand advocates. Services such as those offered by Dynamic Signal are tapping into this requirement, and make it easy for employees to share company content with their own online networks, turning them into brand ambassadors.

Internal communications is often the home of such advocacy efforts as ultimately they are about employees communicating, and this needs to be facilitated from a central and trusted location.

The role of technology

For most employees, there is a large gap between the quality of the technology they use in their personal lives and what they are required to use in their professional lives.  Whether using collaboration tools or video conferencing or consuming digital content, the experience should be ‘consumer grade,’ use the latest digital technologies and be personalized where appropriate and easy to use.

The role and importance of mobile in delivering the ideal customer experience is well documented.  The growing importance of mobile for connecting with and engaging employees, especially non-desktop employees, has also had a lot of coverage.  So,it is fair to say that if employees can now manage most of their lives via a selection of clever mobile apps or web apps, they will increasingly expect to be able to access every element of the employee experience, from work to rewards to feedback via their mobile devices.

Recent 2017 trends in HR such as those by Jeanne Meister for Forbes call for leaders ‘to apply a consumer and digital lens to the HR function.’  Perhaps the same should be said for Internal Communications, working in partnership with HR and other functions to create an employee experience that mirrors their best customer experience. Easier said than done, for many reasons, but worth noting nonetheless.

And finally…

The notion of employee experience is gaining momentum in the business world and underlines the importance of collaboration between departments, a much more integrated approach across multiple dimensions, and an evolution of roles and strategies – even the redesign of the organization itself.

Being too focused on employee engagement (the end) as opposed to the means (the experiences that lead to engagement) may well explain why engagement levels have not grown in recent years.  A future demands a more holistic approach. Understanding and improving the employee experience is critical to attract, retain and engage skilled employees in a highly competitive global economy.